As the summer winds down like the final chirps of a dying music box, it is a time to put away your Beach Reads in favor of something more challenging. Gone is the season of inoffensive thrillers and grocery-store romance novels. It’s time for sweaters and blazers, armchairs angled near a roaring fireplace with a cup of something hot and sweet steaming close by. And for such a sophisticated and thought-provoking environment, it’s up to the right book to truly set the mood.
For me that’d usually be something by Kurt Vonnegut, or perhaps Milan Kundera. But for this new Autumnal season the public has made their wants very clear, and they no longer crave dusty old novels written by authors now more dust than man.
They want Rozene Mannar. There’s an amount of irony in that statement, considering the way she went out. But that’s probably cruel to say. I’m not here to talk about the life or death of Miss Mannar (Even when she was married, she was still Miss Mannar – but I digress), I’m here to discuss her book Roses on the Shore, which has been on the lips and shelves of every bibliophile since it was published post-mortem.
Roses on the Shore chronicles the Rose family, a lower-middle class couple living on the coast of Monterey, where they run a candy shop on the pier. That’s a premise about as saccharine as a bag of seashore taffy, but there’s more to the picture. There’s Zeta Rose, an old city punk recovering from an opiate addiction who moved from to the shore after a nervous breakdown. Then there’s her partner Cyrelle – who I have a lot to say about, but I’ll get back to that. And then there’s little Kiley, their sort-of daughter that provides a majority of the conflict as Zeta and Cyrelle try to mold their lives in a way that makes them seem fit as potential parents.
Despite the flaws, it’s clear that Mannar put a lot of work into researching the adoption system. I remember in its initial drafts when Kiley was a baby dropped on their doorstep, something that I lovingly pointed out hasn’t fit in a story since Dickens.
My editors really wanted me to review this book. I told them that there were other columnists more suited to her genre, but they wanted me, specifically me. I didn’t ask why. I didn’t have to.
Before now I’d only read the first draft of Roses on the Shore – I suppose my one wry comment cemented me as someone unworthy to witness her progress. In the manuscript I read, it was just Zeta Rose running her estranged father’s candy shop, desperate to experience motherhood. Cyrell was a new addition. They’re described as a gaunt and lanky figure, with “a face marred by years of strife and the cynicism strife brings”. There were multiple scenes where Cyrell fiddles with their glasses, pushing them up and down and wiping the lens with a soft cloth or the tail of their shirt.
I do not wear glasses anymore. But I did when I knew Rozene. You can connect the dots, I suppose, I’ve certainly laid them out as clearly as I could.
You, being a post-mortem fan of Miss Mannar, may think that she lived the way she wrote. She must’ve been an embodiment of the photo on her dust jacket – stylishly monochromatic, hair permanently cascading down her shoulders and eyes that brood curiously. It seems wrong to contradict this image, something akin to pissing on a tombstone. Then again, if my editors didn’t want that to happen, they wouldn’t have shoved the story onto my shoulders.
So here I am, a genderless Atlas carrying the weight of Rozene’s life and legacy. It’s a familiar struggle, like when you pull yourself out of the tub after a bath. I don’t like it, but I’ll bare it a little longer, for you, dear Reader.
When I think of Rozene, I don’t think about how much of an auteur she was. I think our wedding day, when she insisted on wrapping her arms around my neck and burying her face in my chest, allowing me to guide her through all the movements of our first dance. I think about how she only drank non-dairy milk, but only the weirdest alternatives, and I would cringe in secondhand embarrassment every time she asked a teenaged barista if they had any pea milk.
On our first date, when I told her I was a book critic, she called me a vulture. I laughed, thinking she was joking. She wasn’t. I know that now. If she hadn’t seen my personal bookshelf, proving in her mind my genuine love for literature, I don’t think she would’ve stayed with me.
She chewed her hair. When she was editing or trying to pick something from a menu – a constant struggle for as long as I knew her – she would take a lock of chestnut hair and gnaw it in between her teeth, slowly, like a cow masticating on a mouthful of terrible spaghetti. And she was always saying things slightly wrong, telling me that she could care less or that I was taking her for granite. I couldn’t believe a writer would have such a loose grasp on her own native tongue. I tried to correct her once and she blew up on me, saying that she wasn’t some first-timer’s novel to tear apart for the internet’s amusement. I didn’t bring it up again.
Rozene claimed she didn’t have an issue with my being non-binary, but her actions spoke otherwise. She was a woman of black and white, postmodernism eluded her, genre-bending stories annoyed her, and she considered mixing multiple flavors of frozen yogurt in one cup to be practically sacrilegious. Objectively it made sense that accepting a partner neither male nor female would go against her natural instincts. It was hard not to think of her love towards me as some kind of a compromise.
And maybe it was. Maybe it was.
But there are some things I’d like to point out. In chapter nine, when Cyrelle refuses to go to Zeta’s poetry reading, it wasn’t because they had to stay late stocking their shipment of exotic taffies. I mean yes, technically that was the reason in the book. In real life, however, Rozene had a reading of one of her short stories at a talk hosted by her Alma Mater. I didn’t attend, not because of any work-related reason, but because I heard that Rozene had referred to me in her bio as her wife, an innocuous word that left me practically bed-bound, with a sheet covering the full-length mirror at the end of the bedroom.
“I don’t see why it bothers you so much,” she told me when she returned, sitting on the edge of the bed with a reluctant hand on my stomach. “You’re not not a woman. You’re not anything, right?”
In the three hundred and nineteen pages of Roses on the Shore, Cyrelle does not experience gender dysmorphia. They do not press their shirt against their skin and regard the slight curve of their chest like a loaded gun. They do not experience the fear and relief of taking off their binder at the end of the day and allowing themselves to breathe again. They do not look down at their sweaty, naked body after a tumble with their lover and idly wonder where this fleshy vessel came from and who’s controlling it.
Cyrelle just runs a candy shop. They are witty, but emotionally unavailable, though with the way Rozene and I ended up she could’ve made it a lot worse.
Despite everything, I truly loved her – past-tense, but present, nonetheless.
I went to her funeral. I dressed in black with dark sunglasses and my hair tucked under a beanie, and I sat in the last pew at the church, practically with one foot out the door in case I needed to make a quick escape.
I recognized some of the people that spoke, and even the people that I didn’t know I recognized. There was a soft, sad man with broad shoulders and wispy red hair. He was her husband, he had to be, I recognized his face from drunkenly scrolling through Rozene’s social media on bad nights. And holding his hand, dressed in a black taffeta dress with her burnished copper hair woven into a tight braid, was a little girl.
As the priest gave her eulogy, I watched the little girl fidget and dawdle. She was clearly too young to truly grasp what was going on around her, but old enough to know that it was very serious. Without looking to see if anyone was watching, she reached up to her braid and began to chew on the tuft of hair at the end.
It was then it clicked in my head. This was Rozene’s daughter.
That’s one true thing about Roses on the Shore – Rozene desperately wanted a child. And, like she ignored my gender identity, I ignored that desire of hers. I lie awake in bed sometimes and think about the end of the book. Zeta and Cyrell finally bring Kiley home, and as the book closes Zeta is watching Cyrell teach their new daughter how to bake cookies, and she forms a poem in her head, with the sweet smells of the candy shop and the crashing of the ocean swirling around her. I think about that scene and wonder if that was Rozene’s hope for our future. Maybe if she allowed me to read past the initial draft, I would’ve understood.
I’m rambling. Grief will do that to you, you know, send you spiraling through all sorts of narrative alleys and cul de sacs. As much as I’d like to think that this isn’t about me, my connection to the novel is undeniable and almost obvious to point out. So, as I’m sure everyone’s wondering, what did Cyprus Profio think of Rozene Mannar’s Roses on the Shore?
It was okay.
It was fine, really. The voice is there, and she really paints a picture of this little sea town and the people that inhabit it. It risks becoming a little schlocky at times, with the quality of an unreliable narrator that the author is insisting we trust. I enjoyed hearing the fighting between the main couple warped and reverberated across the owners of the shops around them. It was almost farcical in nature.
I didn’t hate it. I think she really would’ve nailed a second book if she got the chance to write one.
Miranda Seaver Caravalho is a queer San Jose-based writer and theatrical artist. Her work has been featured in Subzero and the Last Frontier Theater Festival. You can read her Bay Area arts column on ArtsEarth, or follow her cat on Twitter @TheKafka.